Warning: Everything Can Kill You

Stop! Are you about to eat a scoop of onion dip? It could cause meningitis. Showing some kids around work?

Stop! Are you about to eat a scoop of onion dip? It could cause meningitis. Showing some kids around work? For God’s sake, keep them away from the stapler. Planning a walk? Bring plenty of water or you could end up in a coma!

And let’s not even talk about what could happen if you take the kids to the mall and find yourselves contemplating an escalator ride. Suffice it to say you should tie their shoes, insist they hold the handrail, place them in the center of the step, and say your prayers (but not on your knees, for obvious reasons). “Perhaps most important, learn where the emergency shutoff button is so you can turn off the escalator if someone gets trapped while riding,” says an American Academy of Pediatrics report, ominously titled Hidden Dangers and Child Safety.

That’s right: If you want to be safe—and who doesn’t?—every time you ride the escalator with a child, you should first make sure you can leap into action and slam off the calamitous contraption, mid-mangle.

That’s not too much to think about when you’re on a little shopping trip, is it?

I say it is. I say we are being warned about the weirdest, wildest, least likely, and most far-fetched, ill-founded, and downright bizarre possibilities to the point where we are being scared stupid. “Watch out” mania rules the media. As Ellen DeGeneres joked in her best newscaster voice, “It could be the most deadly thing in the world, and you may be having it for dinner. We’ll tell you what it is tonight at 11.” With warnings coming at us thick and fast from every media source, and especially Dr. Oz—a one-man worry machine—we are in danger (danger!) of becoming too scared to even get off the couch and go to the bathroom (which is probably just as well because did you know there are germs lurking in the toilet bowl? Pretty scary!).

All the warnings above are real; the stapler one came from a friend’s interoffice memo. But they’re just the tip of the iceberg. (Watch out for those too!) For about a month, I watched TV, cruised the Internet, and read a bunch of books, magazines, and e-mail “tips” to see what the average American gets warned about in the course of everyday life.

The result? I am typing this from inside a giant safe-deposit box. You can feed me—but no onion dip, please—from a hole I drilled in the side.

I don’t have a cell phone, because it could give me a brain tumor. I don’t have a bottle of water, because the plastic could disrupt my endocrine receptors and turn me into a woman. Oh, wait. I already am.

Well … see?

I don’t have a mattress, because the fumes could be toxic. I don’t eat meat; it could give me asthma. I can’t have a pet; I could trip over it. I can’t wash my hair, because shampoo could be carcinogenic (and also because I’m in a box). But I can’t leave the box and go to the grocery store, because I might be tempted to put my kid in a shopping cart. And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “parents are strongly encouraged to seek alternatives to transporting their child in a shopping cart until an effective revised performance standard for shopping cart safety is implemented in the United States.”

That’s right: The modern American shopping cart is just too dangerous. Parents must come up with an alternative. Maybe a dogsled? A mini Hummer? A kid-size version of those exercise balls you put gerbils in to roll around?

Oh, well, I probably shouldn’t leave my box anyway, because if I go out in the sun, it could give me cancer. Then again, so could sunscreen. Then again … Oh, heck, I’m not really in a box. That was just a bit of hyperbole, a trick I learned from the warning industry itself. It works this way: The media will dig up some new study or, alternatively, find some tragic example of something really strange that may sort of prove that someone somewhere is somehow in at least a smidgen of danger. The next thing you know, it’s “Why you should never _____” (fill in a verb). Or “Up next! Is your _____ (fill in a noun) dangerous?” The answer to the latter is always “Yes!”

Let’s take a look at some of the warnings out there:

Watch Out for Dip!

Dr. Oz was celebrating Super Bowl Sunday, or, as he said his family likes to call it, “Super Germ Sunday.”

What fun they must be.

Anyway, Dr. Oz had some woman serve dip at her church, and then he sent the dip remains to a lab to see what was in it, besides the inevitable onion soup mix.

Guess what. The lab discovered Group B streptococcus, bacteria that are generally found in the intestinal tract and can probably be traced to the detested double-dippers. Furthermore, said Dr. Oz, these bacteria can lead to things like … meningitis!

He neglected to add that strep B is usually a hazard only to newborns (who aren’t big dip enthusiasts), and bacterial meningitis is quite rare. Instead, he left viewers ready to lynch the next guy who sticks a half-chomped chip in the guacamole.

But it’s not just dip that’s going to kill you. Dr. Oz has devoted other segments to the dangers of cosmetics-counter makeup (which he recommends you spray with disinfectant), tanning beds, shoes, nail salons, and that silent scourge: the mints you get next to the cash register in restaurants. Really, he did a whole big thing on these, and his grossed-out audience swore off them forever.

As if so many millions have been felled by free mints.

In Dr. Oz’s world, pretty much anything that anyone else has ever touched, you shouldn’t. He considers this common sense. I consider it obsessive-compulsive disorder. Since we’re both alive and healthy, you can pick your camp.

Mine gets to keep eating free mints.

Watch Out for Overheating!

Warning! “Hot weather can have a dire effect on senior health,” reads the website Everyday Inflated Fears. Er, sorry—Everyday Health. So what are the symptoms of overheating? You’ll never guess. Tops on the list: thirst! Then come those ever so subtle hints including “staggering,” “fainting,” “high body temperature,” and, in case you still didn’t get the message, “coma.”

My God, is there any way to avoid this stealthy danger? Thankfully, yes. Try these obscure but possibly helpful remedies: “Drink plenty of liquids.” Also: “Avoid exercising in the heat.” And:

“Cover windows that are in direct sunlight.” Do you think?

Not that I ever want to see seniors suffer from overheating, but I also don’t want to see seniors suffer from being treated as if they’ve got bingo chips for brains. Anyone who’s been around for 60 or more years has probably figured out by now that when you’re thirsty, you should drink, and when you’re staggering, it’s time to take a break. Same goes for when you’re in a coma.

Watch Out for Musical Instruments!

“You don’t want your child to live in a bubble, but remember that the more chances you take, the more likely your child will be injured or killed by an accident,” reads the passive-aggressive Hidden Dangers to Your Child’s Safety page on about.com.

And so it warns about the “hidden dangers” of bouncy houses and parade floats (“which can run over a child along the parade route”) and my favorite new fear, “musical instruments, such as a guitar, that can hurt a young child who is playing with the string … if one of the strings that is under high tension breaks, flying into his eye, or scratches his face.”

Forget the terrible grammar.

To me, that is the gold standard of warnings: a warning about an item that has been around almost forever and never been associated with any danger except to the eardrums of parents and music teachers. And now it’s a bona fide health hazard! To come up with not just one but two possible injuries from a guitar takes warning genius. My hat is off to you, Child Safety Basic writers. (I just hope it doesn’t accidentally hit you in the eye and scratch your cornea, possibly causing blindness.)

Watch Out for Weather!

Have you noticed that when a big storm is coming up, it’s no longer just a storm; it is “Winter Storm ’07!” or “Heat Wave ’10!” Jack Glass has. He’s a scientist and an expert on disaster communication, and he has been watching “weather creep” for the past five years or so. “Now everything has a year after it,” says Glass. The not-so-hidden message? This is it! The biggie! The one you’ll always remember! “So everybody is out buying their milk, bread, and eggs, and suddenly it comes and goes with absolutely no impact.”

But at least you’ve got food in the house.

Watch Out for Warnings that Sound as if They Were Written By Lawyers on Crack!

T-Mobile put out a set of instructions for its customers, encouraging them to “use your phone in a safe and sensible manner.” One of these “sensible” tips? “If your device rings and you discover it’s in the backseat, do not crawl over the seat to answer it while driving.”

That’s verbatim. And it pretty much illustrates the whole problem. We get so many warnings flying at us that real dangers (drunk driving) and the almost hallucinatory ones (backseat-climbing driving) get jumbled together. What’s really going to kill us? A kamikaze float? Winter Storm ’11? Or sitting in the La-Z-Boy watching the news and overdosing on Doritos?

The fact is, the more strange and striking the warning, the less likely it is to be true, says David Freedman, author of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them. We viewers tune in to the shocking studies because for some strange reason we like to be scared. As kids, we had ghost stories. As adults, we have health stories. Either way, we listen up because something that seemed so innocent is about to kill us! But shouldn’t it have killed us already? If the world is full of such horrible ills, why are we living longer than ever?

Turns out, we live in very safe times. Not perfectly safe; nothing is. But safe enough that instead of worrying about diphtheria, we’re worrying about dip.

Pay attention to your health—and a little less to the health scare of the day—and you’ll be fine. Provided, that is, you watch out for that onion dip, and the shopping carts, and your kid’s Polly Pockets, and Fall Foliage Color-palooza ’10, and the top button on your shirt, and …

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